Recently, Justice Denny Thomas in Edmonton allowed television cameras inside the courtroom to broadcast his long-awaited decision in the Travis Vader murder case. His decision to allow cameras has stirred up the debate on whether or not to allow cameras into Canadian courtrooms.
Broadcasting inside courtrooms is nothing new in the United States but is extremely rare in Canada. Many of us remember the O.J. Simpson trial and watching the travesty unfold live on television. In Canada, trials of first instance are almost never televised. The Supreme Court of Canada has broadcast most of its proceedings on the Cable Public Affairs Channel (CPAC) since the 1990s. Anyone who has flipped past this channel knows that unless you are a lawyer, it is about as exciting as watching paint dry.
The issue of broadcasting trials featuring live witness testimony raises more questions than broadcasting appeals where lawyers and judges debate legal points. For many, the idea of broadcasting trials is a natural extension of the open, public court system that we currently have in Canada. Apart from the rare case that prohibits the public from watching, anyone can walk into any courtroom in Canada and watch a trial. Our courts are open to the public. Why then would broadcasting the trials be any different?
The Influence of the Camera
One consideration is the potential for trial witnesses to be influenced by the evidence being broadcast outside of the courtroom. In most cases, the trial judge makes an order excluding witnesses from the courtroom until the witness has testified. If the trial proceedings are broadcast live on television, a witness may receive information about what other witnesses have said, the risk of evidence contamination certainly increases with the cameras running.
There is also the risk of witnesses “playing” to the camera. Trial witnesses’ evidence can easily be influenced by the knowledge that their testimony may be seen by millions of people.
I have at times asked for a defence medical psychiatric examination to be recorded on video. Defence psychiatrists routinely object, citing the risk that the plaintiff will “play” to the camera. While no studies can confirm that this is likely to happen, it is a risk – or at the very least a perceived risk.
The lawyers involved may also not be immune from the temptation of playing up to the camera. What lawyer would not be influenced by the fact that their conduct and performance in the court room may be scrutinized by millions of people across the country?
As a trial lawyer involved in the process and with experience trying cases, I come down on the side of keeping cameras out of our courtrooms. Trials are difficult enough for all of those involved. We don’t need to add to the pressure and stress of having everything be broadcast to the public at large. If you’re interested in seeing how justice is administered, I would invite you to attend court in person to get the most from the experience.
Ontario residents can find addresses of our province’s courts on the website of the Attorney General.